We read in Parashat Vayeshev of Yosef’s response to Potifar’s wife who attempted to lure him into an intimate adulterous relationship. Yosef explained to her that he could not betray his master, Potifar, in this fashion, and concludes, “How can I commit this great evil, and I will have sinned against God” (39:9).
A number of writers have noted that Yosef here speaks only of the sin that he would commit by sleeping with Potifar’s wife, without mentioning the fact that she, too, would obviously be committing an offense. Yosef asks, “How can I commit this great evil,” rather than, “How can we commit this great evil.” He observes how he would be betraying Potifar by sleeping with his wife, without noting that she would likewise be betraying him. The simplest explanation for this, it would seem, is that as the servant in the household Yosef knew he had to speak respectfully to Potifar’s wife and not question or criticize her decisions. It was certainly not his place to teach Potifar’s wife morality. Another possibility (suggested by Rav Shlomo Amar) is that Yosef was, in fact, subtly hinting to Potifar’s wife that she was acting immorally. When he said, “There is no one greater in this home than me…so how can I commit this great evil,” he wanted Potifar’s wife to understand that her stature in the home exceeded his and she bore greater obligations to Potifar than he did. And thus this was Yosef’s way of trying to convince her to desist.
Rav Simcha Bunim of Pashischa (Kol Simcha), however, finds deeper significance in Yosef’s formulation. He explains that Yosef saw himself separate and distinct from Potifar’s wife, so much so that he could not even bring himself to speak of them as “we.” He was emotionally so distant from he that could not speak of “them” as committing a sin together, which might have some subtle connotation of some sort of equivalence between them. Saying, “We would be sinning” would imply that their moral failures would bear some resemblance to one another. In Yosef’s mind, he stood fundamentally apart from Potifar’s wife in terms of moral conscience, and thus he could not even speak of them failing together.
Underlying Rav Simcha Bunim’s comments is the notion that Yosef determined to follow his own standards, and not those of the people around him. There is a natural tendency to reach moral decisions based on our surroundings, on the accepted standards and norms of the people with whom we associate. Yosef, however, remained resolute in his adherence to his family’s standards even while living in Potifar’s home. He did not define “sin” the way Potifar’s wife defined “sin.” His conception of morality, of right and wrong, bore no resemblance to that of the people among whom he lived. He understood that he must conduct himself on an entirely different plane of morals and values. We learn from Yosef that we must follow our own standards without being influenced by the standards and values of the society around us. It does not suffice to be moral and ethical in the relative sense, as compared to those among whom we live. We must adhere to the standards dictated by the Torah, and this must be our sole yardstick in distinguishing between right and wrong.